THE LOST CONTINENT by C. J. Cutliffe Hyne
6. The Biters of the City Walls
Here then was the manner of my reception back in the capital of Atlantis, and some first glimpse at her new policies. I freely confess to my own inaction and limpness; but it was all deliberate. The old ties of duty seemed lost, or at least merged in one another. Beforetime, to serve the king was to serve the Clan of the Priests, from which he had been chosen, and whose head he constituted. But Phorenice was self-made, and appeared to be a rule unto herself; if Zaemon was to be trusted, he was the mouthpiece of the Priests, and their Clan had set her at defiance; and how was a mere honest man to choose on the instant between the two?
But cold argument told me that governments were set up for the good of the country at large, and I said to myself that there would be my choice. I must find out which rule promised best of Atlantis, and do my poor best to prop it into full power. And here at once there opened up another path in the maze: I had heard some considerable talk of rebels; of another faction of Atlanteans who, whatever their faults might be, were at any rate strong enough to beleaguer the capital; and before coming to any final decision, it would be as well to take their claims in balance with the rest. So on the night of that very same day on which I had just re-planted my foot on the old country’s shores, I set out to glean for myself tidings on the matter.
No one inside the royal pyramid gainsaid me. The banquet had ended abruptly with the terrible scene that I have set down above on these tablets, for with Tarca writhing on the floor, and thrusting out the gruesome scars of his leprosy, even the most gluttonous had little enough appetite for further gorging. Phorenice glowered on the feasters for a while longer in silent fury, but saying no further word; and then her eyes turned on me, though softened somewhat.
“You may be an honest man, Deucalion,” she said, at length, “but you are a monstrous cold one. I wonder when you will thaw?” And here she smiled. “I think it will be soon. But for now I bid you farewell. In the morning we will take this country by the shoulders, and see it in some new order.”
She left the banqueting-hall then, Ylga following; and taking precedence of my rank, I went out next, whilst all others stood and made salutation. But I halted by Tarca first, and put my hand on his unclean flesh. “You are an unfortunate man,” I said, “but I can admire a brave soldier. If relief can be gained for your plague, I will use interest to procure it for you.”
The man’s thanks came in a mumble from his wrecked mouth, and some of those near shuddered in affected disgust. I turned on them with a black brow: “Your charity, my lords, seems of as small account as your courage. You affected a fine disbelief of Zaemon’s sayings, and a simpering contempt for his priesthood, but when it comes to laying a hand on him, you show a discretion which, in the old days, we should have called by an ugly name. I had rather be Tarca, with all his uncleanness, than any of you now as you stand.”
With which leave-taking I waited coldly till they gave me my due salutation, and then walked out of the banqueting-hall without offering a soul another glance. I took my way to the grand gate of the pyramid, called for the officer of the guard, and demanded exit. The man was obsequious enough, but he opened with some demur.
“My lord’s attendants have not yet come up?”
“I have none.”
“My lord knows the state of the streets?”
“I did twenty years back. I shall be able to pick my way.”
“My lord must remember that the city is beleaguered,” the fellow persisted. “The people are hungry. They prowl in bands after nightfall, and—I make no question that my lord would conquer in a fight against whatever odds, but—”
“Quite right. I covet no street scuffle to-night. Lend me, I pray you, a sufficiency of men. You will know best what are needed. For me, I am accustomed to a city with quiet streets.”
A score of sturdy fellows were detailed off for my escort, and with them in a double file on either hand, I marched out from the close perfumed air of the pyramid into the cool moonlight of the city. It was my purpose to make a tour of the walls and to find out somewhat of the disposition of these rebels.
But the Gods saw fit to give me another education first. The city, as I saw it during that night walk, was no longer the old capital that I had known, the just accretion of the ages, the due admixture of comfort and splendour. The splendour was there, vastly increased. Whole wards had been swept away to make space for new palaces, and new pyramids of the wealthy, and I could not but have an admiration for the skill and the brain which made possible such splendid monuments.
And, indeed, gazing at them there under the silver of the moonlight, I could almost understand the emotions of the Europeans and other barbarous savages which cause them to worship all such great buildings as Gods, since they deem them too wonderful and majestic to be set up by human hands unaided.
Still, if it was easy to admire, it was simple also to see plain advertisement of the cost at which these great works had been reared. From each grant of ground, where one of these stately piles earned silver under the moon, a hundred families had been evicted and left to harbour as they pleased in the open; and, as a consequence, now every niche had its quota of sleepers, and every shadow its squad of fierce wild creatures, ready to rush out and rob or slay all wayfarers of less force than their own.
Myself, I am no pamperer of the common people. I say that, if a man be left to hunger and shiver, he will work to gain him food and raiment; and if not, why then he can die, and the State is well rid of a worthless fellow. But here beside us, as we marched through many wards, were marks of blind oppression; starved dead bodies, with the bones starting through the lean skin, sprawled in the gutter; and indeed it was plain that, save for the favoured few, the people of the great capital were under a most heavy oppression.
But at this, though I might regret it abominably, I could make no strong complaint. By the ancient law of the land all the people, great and small, were the servants of the king, to be put without question to what purposes he chose; and Phorenice stood in the place of the king. So I tried to think no treason, but with a sigh passed on, keeping my eyes above the miseries and the squalors of the roadway, and sending out my thoughts to the stars which hung in the purple night above, and to the High Gods which dwelt amongst them, seeking, if it might be, for guidance for my future policies. And so in time the windings of the streets brought us to the walls, and, coursing beside these and giving fitting answer to the sentries who beat their drums as we passed, we came in time to that great gate which was a charge to the captain of the garrison.
Here it was plain there was some special commotion. A noise of laughter went up into the still night air, and with it now and again the snarl and roar of a great beast, and now and again the shriek of a hurt man. But whatever might be afoot, it was not a scene to come upon suddenly. The entrance gates of our great capital were designed by their ancient builders to be no less strong than the walls themselves. Four pairs of valves were there, each a monstrous block of stone two man-heights square, and a man-height thick, and the wall was doubled to receive them, enclosing an open circus between its two parts. The four gates themselves were set one at the inner, one at the outer side of each of these walls, and a hidden machinery so connected them, that of each set one could not open till the other was closed; and as for forcing them without war engines, one might as foolishly try to push down the royal pyramid with the bare hand.
My escort made outcry with the horn which hung from the wall inviting such a summons, and a warder came to an arrow-slit, and did inspection of our persons and business. His survey was according to the ancient form of words, which is long, and this was made still more tedious by the noise from within, which ever and again drowned all speech between us entirely.
But at last the formalities had been duly complied with, and he shot back the massive bars and bolts of stone, and threw ajar one monstrous stone valve of the door. Into the chamber within—a chamber made from the thickness of the wall between the two doors—I and my fellows crowded, and then the warder with his machines pulled to the valve which had been opened, and came to me again through the press of my escort, bowing low to the ground.
“I have no vail to give you,” I said abruptly. “Get on with your duty. Open me that other door.”
“With respect, my lord, it would be better that I should first announce my lord’s presence. There is a baiting going forward in the circus, and the tigers are as yet mere savages, and no respecters of persons.”
“The tigers, if my lord will permit them the name. They are baiting a batch of prisoners with the two great beasts which the Empress (whose name be adored) has sent here to aid us keep the gate. But if my lord will, there are the ward rooms leading off this passage, and the galleries which run out from them commanding the circus, and from there my lord can see the sport undisturbed.”
Now, the mere lust for killing excites only disgust in me, but I suspected the orders of the Empress in this matter, and had a curiosity to see her scheme. So I stepped into the warder’s lodge, and on into the galleries which commanded the circus with their arrow-slits. The old builders of the place had intended these for a second line of defence, for, supposing the outer doors all forced, an enemy could be speedily shot down in the circus, without being able to give a blow in return, and so would only march into a death-trap. But as a gazing-place on a spectacle they were no less useful.
The circus was bright lit by the moonlight, and the air which came in to me from it was acrid with the reek of blood. There was no sport in what was going forward: as I said, it was mere killing, and the sight disgusted me. I am no prude about this matter. Give a prisoner his weapons, put him in a pit with beasts of reasonable strength, and let him fight to a finish if you choose, and I can look on there and applaud the strokes. The war prisoner, being a prisoner, has earned death by natural law, and prefers to get his last stroke in hot blood than to be knocked down by the headsman’s axe. And it is any brave man’s luxury either to help or watch a lusty fight. But this baiting in the circus between the gates was no fair battle like that.
To begin with, the beasts were no fair antagonists for single men. In fact, twenty men armed might well have fled from them. When the warder said tigers, I supposed he meant the great cats of the woods. But here, in the circus, I saw a pair of the most terrific of all the fur-bearing land beasts, the great tigers of the caves—huge monsters, of such ponderous strength that in hunger they will oftentimes drag down a mammoth, if they can find him away from his herd.
How they had been brought captive I could not tell. Hunter of beasts though I had been for all my days, I take no shame in saying that I always approached the slaying of a cave-tiger with stratagem and infinite caution. To entrap it alive and bring it to a city on a chain was beyond my most daring schemes, and I have been accredited with more new things than one. But here it was in fact, and I saw in these captive beasts a new certificate for Phorenice’s genius.
The purpose of these two cave-tigers was plain: whilst they were in the circus, and loose, no living being could cross from one gate to the other. They were a new and sturdy addition to the defences of the capital. A collar of bronze was round the throat of each, and on the collar was a massive chain which led to the wall, where it could be payed out or hauled in by means of a windlass in one of the hidden galleries. So that at ordinary moments the two huge beasts could be tethered, one close to either end of the circus, as the litter of bones and other messes showed, leaving free passage-way between the two sets of doors.
But when I stood there by the arrow-slit, looking down into the moonlight of the circus, these chains were slackened (though men stood by the windlass of each), and the great striped brutes were prowling about the circus with the links clanking and chinking in their wake. Lying stark on the pavement were the bodies of some eight men, dead and uneaten; and though the cave-tigers stopped their prowlings now and again to nuzzle these, and beat them about with playful paw-blows, they made no pretence at commencing a meal. It was clear that this cruel sport had grown common to them, and they knew there were other victims yet to be added to the tally.
Presently, sure enough, as I watched, a valve of the farther gate swung back an arm’s length, and a prisoner, furiously resisting, was thrust out into the circus. He fell on his face, and after one look around him he lay resolutely still, with eyes on the ground passively awaiting his fate. The ponderous stone of the gate clapped to in its place; the cave-tigers turned in their prowlings; and a chatter of wagers ran to and fro amongst the watchers behind the arrow-slits.
It seemed there were niceties of cruelty in this wretched game. There was a sharp clank as the windlasses were manned, and the tethering chains were drawn in by perhaps a score of links. One of the cave-tigers crouched, lashed its tail, and launched forth on a terrific spring. The chain tautened, the massive links sang to the strain, and the great beast gave a roar which shook the walls. It had missed the prone man by a hand’s breadth, and the watchers behind the arrow-slits shrieked forth their delight. The other tiger sprang also and missed, and again there were shouts of pleasure, which mingled with the bellowing voices of the beasts. The man lay motionless in his form. One more cowardly, or one more brave, might have run from death, or faced it; but this poor prisoner chose the middle course—he permitted death to come to him, and had enough of doggedness to wait for it without stir.
The great cave-tigers were used, it appeared, to this disgusting sport. There were no more wild springs, no more stubbings at the end of the massive chains. They lay down on the pavement, and presently began to purr, rolling on to their sides and rubbing themselves luxuriously. The prisoner still lay motionless in his form.
By slow degrees the monstrous brutes each drew to the end of its chain and began to reach at the man with out-stretched forepaw. The male could not touch him; the female could just reach him with the far tip of a claw; and I saw a red scratch start up in the bare skin of his side at every stroke. But still the prisoner would not stir. It seemed to me that they must slack out more links of one of the tigers’ chains, or let the vile play linger into mere tediousness.
But I had more to learn yet. The male tiger, either taught by his own devilishness, or by those brutes that were his keepers, had still another ruse in store. He rose to his feet and turned round, backing against the chain. A yell of applause from the hidden men behind the arrow-slits told that they knew what was in store; and then the monstrous beast, stretched to the utmost of its vast length, kicked sharply with one hind paw.
I heard the crunch of the prisoner’s ribs as the pads struck him, and at that same moment the poor wretch’s body was spurned away by the blow, as one might throw a fruit with the hand. But it did not travel far. It was clear that the she-tiger knew this manoeuvre of her mate’s. She caught the man on his bound, nuzzling over him for a minute, and then tossing him high into the air, and leaping up to the full of her splendid height after him.
Those other onlookers thought it magnificent; their gleeful shouts said as much. But for me, my gorge rose at the sight. Once the tigers had reached him, the man had been killed, it is true, without any unnecessary lingering. Even a light blow from those terrific paws would slay the strongest man living. But to see the two cave-tigers toying with the poor body was an insult to the pride of our race.
However, I was not there to preach the superiority of man to the beasts, and the indecency and degradation of permitting man to be unduly insulted. I had come to learn for myself the new balance of things in the kingdom of Atlantis, and so I stood at my place behind the arrow-slit with a still face. And presently another scene in this ghastly play was enacted.
The cave-tigers tired of their sport, and first one and then the other fell once more to prowling over the littered pavements, with the heavy chains scraping and chinking in their wake. They made no beginning to feast on the bodies provided for them. That would be for afterwards. In the present, the fascination of slaughter was big in them, and they had thought that it would be indulged further. It seemed that they knew their entertainers.
Again the windlass clanked, and the tethering chains drew the great beasts clear of the doorway; and again a valve of the farther door swung ajar, and another prisoner was thrust struggling into the circus. A sickness seized me when I saw that this was a woman, but still, in view of the object I had in hand, I made no interruption.
It was not that I had never seen women sent to death before. A general, who has done his fighting, must in his day have killed women equally with men; yes, and seen them earn their death-blow by lusty battling. Yet there seemed something so wanton in this cruel helpless sacrifice of a woman prisoner, that I had a struggle with myself to avoid interference. Still it is ever the case that the individual must be sacrificed to a policy, and so as I say, I watched on, outwardly cold and impassive.
I watched too (I confess it freely) with a quickening heart. Here was no sullen submissive victim like the last. She may have been more cowardly (as some women are), she may have been braver (as many women have shown themselves); but, at any rate, it was clear that she was going to make a struggle for her life, and to do vicious damage, it might be, before she yielded it up. The watchers behind the arrow-slits recognized this. Their wagers, and the hum of their appreciation, swept loudly round the ring of the circus.
They stripped their prisoners, before they thrust them out to this death, of all the clothes they might carry, for clothes have a value; and so the woman stood there bare-limbed in the moonlight.
She clapped her back to the great stone door by which she had entered, and faced fate with glowing eye. Gods! there have been times in early years when I could have plucked out sword and jumped down, and fought for her there for the sheer delight of such a battle. But now policy restrained me. The individual might want a helping hand, but it was becoming more and more clear that Atlantis wanted a minister also; and before these great needs, the lesser ones perforce must perish. Still, be it noted that, if I did not jump down, no other man there that night had sufficient manhood remaining to venture the opportunity.
My heart glowed as I watched her. She picked a bone from the litter on the pavement and beat off its head by blows against the wall. Then with her teeth she fashioned the point to still further sharpness. I could see her teeth glisten white in the moonrays as she bit with them.
The huge cave-tigers, which stood as high as her head as they walked, came nearer to her in their prowlings, yet obviously neglected her. This was part of their accustomed scheme of torment, and the woman knew it well. There was something intolerable in their noiseless, ceaseless paddings over the pavement. I could see the prisoner’s breast heave as she watched them. A terror such as that would have made many a victim sick and helpless.
But this one was bolder than I had thought. She did not wait for a spring: she made the first attack herself. When the she-tiger made its stroll towards her, and was in the act of turning, she flung herself into a sudden leap, striking viciously at its eye with her sharpened bone. A roar from the onlookers acknowledged the stroke. The cave-tiger’s eye remained undarkened, but the puny weapon had dealt it a smart flesh wound, and with a great bellow of surprise and pain it scampered away to gain space for a rush and a spring.
But the woman did not await its charge. With a shrill scream she sped forward, running at the full of her speed across the moonlight directly towards that shadowed part of the encircling wall within whose thickness I had my gazing place; and then, throwing every tendon of her body into the spring, made the greatest leap that surely any human being ever accomplished, even when spurred on by the utmost of terror and desperation. In an after day I measured it, and though of a certainty she must have added much to the tally by the sheer force of her run, which drove her clinging up the rough surface of the wall, it is a sure thing that in that splendid leap her feet must have dangled a man-height and a half above the pavement.
I say it was prodigious, but then the spur was more than the ordinary, and the woman herself was far out of the common both in thews and intelligence; and the end of the leap left her with five fingers lodged in the sill of the arrow-slit from which I watched. Even then she must have slipped back if she had been left to herself, for the sill sloped, and the stone was finely smooth; but I shot out my hand and gripped hers by the wrist, and instantly she clambered up with both knees on the sills, and her fingers twined round to grip my wrist in her turn.
And now you will suppose she gushed out prayers and promises, thinking only of safety and enlargement. There was nothing of this. With savage panting wordlessness she took fresh grip on the sharpened bone with her spare hand, and lunged with it desperately through the arrow-slit. With the hand that clutched mine she drew me towards her, so as to give the blows the surer chance, and so unprepared was I for such an attack, and with such fierce suddenness did she deliver it, that the first blow was near giving me my quietus. But I grappled with the poor frantic creature as gently as might be—the stone of the wall separating us always—and stripped her of her weapon, and held her firmly captive till she might calm herself.
“That was an ungrateful blow,” I said. “But for my hand you’d have slipped and be the sport of a tiger’s paw this minute.”
“Oh, I must kill some one,” she panted, “before I am killed myself.”
“There will be time enough to think upon that some other day; but for now you are far enough off meeting further harm.”
“You are lying to me. You will throw me to the beasts as soon as I loose my grip. I know your kind: you will not be robbed of your sport.”
“I will go so far as to prove myself to you,” said I, and called out for the warder who had tended the doors below. “Bid those tigers be tethered on a shorter chain,” I ordered, “and then go yourself outside into the circus, and help this lady delicately to the ground.”
The word was passed and these things were done; and I too came out into the circus and joined the woman, who stood waiting under the moonlight. But the others who had seen these doings were by no means suited at the change of plan. One of the great stone valves of the farther door opened hurriedly, and a man strode out, armed and flushed. “By all the Gods!” he shouted. “Who comes between me and my pastime?”
I stepped quietly to the advance. “I fear, sir,” I said, “that you must launch your anger against me. By accident I gave that woman sanctuary, and I had not heart to toss her back to your beasts.”
His fingers began to snap against his hilt.
“You have come to the wrong market here with your qualms. I am captain here, and my word carries, subject only to Phorenice’s nod. Do you hear that? Do you know too that I can have you tossed to those striped gate-keepers of mine for meddling in here without an invitation?” He looked at me sharp enough, but saw plainly that I was a stranger. “But perhaps you carry a name, my man, which warrants your impertinence?”
“Deucalion is my poor name,” I said, “but I cannot expect you will know it. I am but newly landed here, sir, and when I left Atlantis some score of years back, a very different man to you held guard over these gates.” He had his forehead on my feet by this time. “I had it from the Empress this night that she will to-morrow make a new sorting of this kingdom’s dignities. Perhaps there is some recommendation you would wish me to lay before her in return for your courtesies?”
“My lord,” said the man, “if you wish it, I can have a turn with those cave-tigers myself now, and you can look on from behind the walls and see them tear me.”
“Why tell me what is no news?”
“I wish to remind my lord of his power; I wish to beg of his clemency.”
“You showed your power to these poor prisoners; but from what remains here to be seen, few of them have tasted much of your clemency.”
“The orders were,” said the captain of the gate, as though he thought a word might be said here for his defence, “the orders were, my lord, that the tigers should be kept fierce and accustomed to killing.”
“Then, if you have obeyed orders, let me be the last to chide you. But it is my pleasure that this woman be respited, and I wish now to question her.”
The man got to his feet again with obvious relief, though still bowing low.
“Then if my lord will honour me by sitting in my room that overlooks the outer gate, the favour will never be forgotten.”
“Show the way,” I said, and took the woman by the fingers, leading her gently. At the two ends of the circus the tigers prowled about on short chains, growling and muttering.
We passed through the door into the thickness of the outer wall, and the captain of the gate led us into his private chamber, a snug enough box overlooking the plain beyond the city. He lit a torch from his lamp and thrust it into a bracket on the wall, and bowing deeply and walking backwards, left us alone, closing the door in place behind him. He was an industrious fellow, this captain, to judge from the spoil with which his chamber was packed. There could have come very few traders in through that gate below without his levying a private tribute; and so, judging that most of his goods had been unlawfully come by, I had little qualm at making a selection. It was not decent that the woman, being an Atlantean, should go bereft of the dignity of clothes, as though she were a mere savage from Europe; and so I sought about amongst the captain’s spoil for garments that would be befitting.
But, as I busied myself in this search for raiment, rummaging amongst the heaps and bales, with a hand and eye little skilled in such business, I heard a sound behind which caused me to turn my head, and there was the woman with a dagger she had picked from the floor, in the act of drawing it from the sheath.
She caught my eye and drew the weapon clear, but seeing that I made no advance towards her, or move to protect myself, waited where she was, and presently was took with a shuddering.
“Your designs seem somewhat of a riddle,” I said. “At first you wished to kill me from motives which you explained, and which I quite understood. It lay in my power next to confer some small benefit upon you, in consequence of which you are here, and not—shall we say?—yonder in the circus. Why you should desire now to kill the only man here who can set you completely free, and beyond these walls, is a thing it would gratify me much to learn. I say nothing of the trifle of ingratitude. Gratitude and ingratitude are of little weight here. There is some far greater in your mind.”
She pressed a hand hard against her breasts. “You are Deucalion,” she gasped; “I heard you say it.”
“I am Deucalion. So far, I have known no reason to feel shame for my name.”
“And I come of those,” she cried, with a rising voice, “who bite against this city, because they have found their fate too intolerable with the land as it is ordered now. We heard of your coming from Yucatan. It was we who sent the fleet to take you at the entrance to the Gulf.”
“Your fleet gave us a pretty fight.”
“Oh, I know, I know. We had our watchers on the high land who brought us the tidings. We had an omen even before that. Where we lay with our army before the walls here, we saw great birds carrying off the slain to the mountains. But where the fleet failed, I saw a chance where I, a woman, might—”
“Where you might succeed?” I sat me down on a pile of the captain’s stuffs. It seemed as if here at last that I should find a solution for many things. “You carry a name?” I asked.
“They call me Nais.”
“Ah,” I said, and signed to her to take the clothes that I had sought out. She was curiously like, so both my eyes and hearing said, to Ylga, the fan-girl of Phorenice, but as she had told me of no parentage I asked for none then. Still her talk alone let me know that she was bred of none of the common people, and I made up my mind towards definite understanding. “Nais,” I said, “you wish to kill me. At the same time I have no doubt you wish to live on yourself, if only to get credit from your people for what you have done. So here I will make a contract with you. Prove to me that my death is for Atlantis’ good, and I swear by our Lord the Sun to go out with you beyond the walls, where you can stab me and then get you gone. Or the—”
“I will not be your slave.”
“I do not ask you for service. Or else, I wished to say, I shall live so long as the High Gods wish, and do my poor best for this country. And for you—I shall set you free to do your best also. So now, I pray you, speak.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK